WHO: Patrick Cook-Deegan, 21, of Providence
WHERE: Laos, Cambodia, and Burma
WHEN: Last June-September
WHY: "I wanted to do a bicycle ride to raise $15,500 to build a school in Laos," said Cook-Deegan, who worked with Room to Read (roomtoread.org), a nonprofit group that helps build schools and libraries in developing countries.
FROM THE GROUND UP: On a backpacking trip in summer 2005, Cook-Deegan, a senior at Brown University, toured Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and Laos. "Laos affected me the most," he said. "The villages are so isolated. Sometimes that's idealized -- the lack of resources, farming in a third-world county. But the other side is that you don't have running water, you don't have a school, you don't have a doctor."
CYCLING SENSE: Having decided to return to Laos, he wanted to combine adventure and helping people. "I hadn't owned a bike since I was 14, but I thought it would be a great way to get a more intimate feel of the country and the people," said Cook-Deegan, an athlete for most of his school years. He called the project Cycle for Schools (cycleforschools.com) and asked everyone he knew for donations to Room to Read. Before he left, he had raised close to the $15,500 goal and he has since raised $8,000 more.
LEARNING CURVE: Cook-Deegan stresses that while he was happy to help the Laotians, he received much in return. "I wish there was more emphasis placed on what we can learn from them," he said, such as being more in touch with nature, making family a priority over work, and revering the elderly population.
PEDAL POWER: In one month, he cycled 1,200 miles through Laos, often slogging through muddy, potholed, and mountainous roads to reach small towns off the main roads. "I got a map and just went from there. I'd get to one place to sleep and ask how many miles away another guesthouse was. I had a phrasebook and picked up the basics. My number one question was, 'How far?' " He often stayed in villages with no plumbing or electricity. A highlight was meeting with local Laotian Room to Read staff members and visiting two schools they had built. "I asked them, 'Let's say you as a village needed any one thing, what would you ask for?' I thought they'd say electricity or plumbing, but they said a school. That affirmed what I believe about the importance of education."
BODY AND SOUL: Cook-Deegan next cycled 600 miles through Cambodia and flew to Burma (whose government refers to the country as Myanmar), where he cycled another 1,000 miles and worked with the US Campaign for Burma (campaignforburma.org). In Cambodia he took a 10-day course in silent meditation, something new to him. "The course totally changed my life," said Cook-Deegan, who continues with meditation.
NO LOW GEAR: Cook-Deegan is taking a year off from Brown to travel and speak about his trip and promote Room to Read and the US Campaign for Burma. "The chief thing I'm emphasizing is learning at an experiential level, and that's what travel allows you to do." He also plans to start a study-abroad scholarship fund, and next summer plans to work at a school in Sierra Leone.